"They'll probably tell you they have a 50 percent attendance rate—that is important for them to tell you because that helps them keep their brand as the fastest growing minority religion," Jacob Mercy told WW
Saturday morning. “This brand makes numbers seem so large people wouldn't possibly think it could be a cult.”
Mercy was talking to WW
at the sixth monthly Anonymous
protest (see what happened in May here
) in front of Portland's Church of Scientology
. As at previous protests, some of the 20-odd participants wore Guy Fawkes
masks like those in the movie V for Vendetta
, while others wore bandannas or, like ringleader Mercy, went unmasked.
Mercy (pictured above, next to column) is a Portlander in the process of writing a book on the rise of Anonymous or "Anons", the international group launched after Tom Cruise's January YouTube debacle (in which the church tried—ultimately unsuccessfully—to suppress a video
of prominent Scientologist Cruise waxing fruitloopy about his faith) and dedicated to stopping Scientology practices via peaceful means.
The protesters, a mixed bag of twenty- to fortysomethings, convened at Pioneer Square in the late morning for a quick rundown on the legalities of a peaceful protest. An Anon member reminded the group, “Remember, they are well-informed in the court system—if we slip up, we'll end up in court.”
With that the group tromped off, clad with accusatory signs ("Scientology Kills," "The Church of Scientology is a Criminal Organization"), blank name-tags and spirits driven by conspiracy theory, the group marched off to Portland's Church of Scientology building on Southwest Salmon Street. Apart from a police warning to one protest-crasher (below) who kept wandering into the street, the event saw little confrontation.
The mission of this month's protest: Bring Scientology's “Operation Snow White”
to the public eye.
“Under the [Snow White] operation,” says Mercy, “Scientology operatives, committed the largest infiltration of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service in History.” Anonymous members cite the documented case U.S. v. Mary Sue Hubbard
, which they say, exposed an elaborate scam complete with wiretapping and theft of documents from government offices in order to rid the government of unfavorable information on Scientology and discover tax exemption data. In the 1979 case, Mary Sue Hubbard, Scientology founder Ron Hubbard's wife, was convicted along with other Scientologists and sentenced to 5 years in prison (she died in 2002).
Portland Anons say they are avid in exposing the operation to the public because it also sheds light on what protesters called the “Guardian's Office,” or the Scientologists' Operations of Special Affairs. According to Mercy, those found guilty in US. v. Mary Sue Hubbard
were part of this spy group.
“Guardians are covert operatives, responsible for monitoring anti-Scientology affairs and defectors,” said Mercy, who said the Scientologists have a history of following protesters—many of them former Scientologists—to their homes and heckling them. The personal retribution, he explains, is a major reason protesters wear masks to hide their identities.
Though defiant in character, Mercy said he was not unmasked to make a statement: “They have already seen my face—and have my photograph.”
To confirm the Scientologists' tracking methods Mercy's gaze shifted upward to the Church's third floor window. He pointed: “Look, there at the blinds – they are watching us.” Immediately the blinds, which had previously been parted by a lens, returned streamline.
Gwen Mayfield-Barnard, a 22-year Scientologist and current reverend of Portland's chapter, oversaw outdoor filming and observed protesters from behind the church's front glass doors. She offered another perspective on the protest.
“They call us that [cult] because they know it is an insult," said Mayfield-Barnard (pictured above at the May protest). "I am sorry to see a group of people who believe everything they read on the Internet." As for the mysterious upstairs lens, she said, “We record everything in case something gets out of hand.” (Maybe they would have missed something with only one camera.)
Mayfield-Barnard maintained a matriarch's composure during WW
's visit, calling out "There are cookies!" and gesturing to a table laden with nibbles whenever a new Scientologist walked in the door. She cited her own positive experience as a waitress after taking her first Scientology communication class: “At the end of my shift, my manager told me of all the compliments I had received.” The church, she says, sees the classes they offer as tools to self-betterment. “People come to us with aspects in their life that they want to handle. The courses we offer help to address these,” she says.
And according to Mayfield-Barnard, the church is flourishing in Portland. With about 650 members Mayfield-Barnard says she's seen in the last 2 months and 400 more now-and-then members, the church is ready to expand from its 80-seat chapel. She smiles while envisioning Scientology's newest asset, the historic Stevens Building. At 12 floors, the building is a nine-floor upgrade from the current digs. Mayfield-Barnard says the new chapel, bought according to the Portland Business Journal
for $5.38 million in cash, will seat 250. The move is anticipated in 2010.
In contrast to Mayfield-Bernard's insider depiction of Scientology, many Anons are former Scientologists and believe the Church a sham, organized to make money while qualifying for tax reductions. One former Scientologist—who preferred to remain, yes, Anonymous—says, "Scientology is a flagrant abuse of human rights – founded on the premises of programming members and making money.”
Mayfield-Barnard's response to protester accusations? “I just don't understand them, to a point of incomprehensibility.” Briefly losing composure, she said, “I don't know who has been feeding them such a load of poo.”
At that moment, a Scientologist walked in, and she recovered herself. “There is always a friend who needs cookies,” she said cheerfully.